Before arriving at the Max Huber Labs just outside New York City, I thought I knew as much as there was to know about super-luxe skincare brand La Mer, that boasts A-listers as fans and sells 500ml pots of its Moisturising Crème for over £1500. But, it turns out, for a brand that seems on the face of it to be just another in the roster of luxury skincare, there’s a lot more mystery and magic than you might imagine. It starts like every good tale, with the story.
In the Beginning
Originally consisting of a single cream — Crème de la Mer — the brand was founded in California in the 1960s by eccentric rocket scientist Max Huber. After an accident at work left him with fuel burns on his face that wouldn’t heal, Huber decided to create his own skin-saving ointment. Using his expertise as a physicist, and the abundant marine life surrounding his San Diego home, Huber eventually stumbled on the formula for the now iconic Miracle Broth, a secret blend containing fermented sea kelp, which went into every pot of the rich, anti-inflammatory cream. After he died in 1991 the brand was sold to cosmetics giant Estee Lauder Companies, by his daughter, who after realising her father had never written the recipe down, was desperate for the formula not to die with him.
Despite thinking it was a straightforward sale, Lauder scientists were about to find out it was anything but. Upon entering Huber’s home they were greeted by the formula in its raw, unfiltered state in the form of tanks and tanks of fermenting kelp with strange noises emitting from within each one. After trying to decipher his scribbles it became apparent that Huber had rather unconventional methods of production that included harvesting the kelp at specific times of the year based on the alignment of the moon and stars, and playing energy waves to each batch of broth. Armed with all of Huber’s findings the scientists set about trying to recreate the cream with the help of his daughter, a feat which took months, several binned batches and even saw the team contacting a medium to reach Huber in the hopes of figuring out where they were going wrong. What it eventually came down to was a detail from Huber’s house that in retrospect, the Lauder team realised they should have been more mindful of: “We knew from what was in the house that Max had been playing light and sound energy waves to the batches of fermenting kelp, but we had dismissed it when we tried to replicate the formula,” says Paul Tchinnis, Executive Director of Research and Development. “When we just couldn’t get the same results no matter how hard we tried, we soon realised that not only was it a vital part of the process just in terms of retaining the authenticity of this incredible product, but it actually increased the performance and efficacy of the finished formula; the organisms seemed to digest the kelp differently. I guess it was the difference between a physicist’s approach and a chemist’s approach.” Today, each batch of kelp is played a digitalised version of the very last recording of sound and light waves captured by Huber, meaning the Miracle Broth of today’s La Mer is as authentic as it ever was when he was alive.
Making Miracle Broth
At the heart of every pot, bottle and tub of La Mer (and even Inside Space favourite The Lip Balm) is the Miracle Broth, and appropriately for a brand created and built on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, it all centres around the transformative healing powers of the sea. Although the exact recipe remains an industry secret, the main ingredient in the formula is fermented Macrocystis Pyrifera, a species of giant sea kelp that grows prolifically up to 3 feet a day and is a crucial element of the Pacific’s ecosystem. To keep up with the cult-like demand for La Mer today, the brand harvest the kelp in protected waters around Nova Scotia, flash-freezing fronds every day and shipping them to the factory in Melville, NY, where the fermentation process begins. Once there it’s mixed with La Mer’s Lime Tea, which is rich in skin-protecting antioxidants. While Huber used to create the Lime Tea extract by hand peeling limes and placing the peel in 100% proof vodka, today the process is a little different but no less as efficacious.
La Mer Today
Retaining the sense of mystery that they first encountered at Huber’s house over 20 years ago, and perpetuating that cult, word-of-mouth reputation is still important to the brand today. Despite containing hardworking, high quality actives like AHAs and retinols in every formula the brand doesn’t publish results or dwell on ingredients. “We don’t do clinical trials in the same way some other skincare brands do,” say Andy Bevacqua, Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Estée Lauder. “It turns everything into a numbers game which is never what La Mer has been about. We prefer testing it on our customers instead and letting them spread the word about how much they love it.” And it clearly works, even today decades after Huber began selling his cream, customer dedication and brand loyalty remains high and its latest launches, including the The Moisturizing Cool Gel Cream, elicit a spending frenzy from its fans; it’s thought the longest standing devotee is the American, Countess Lucienne von Doz who has been using the cream since the 1980s when she used to buy it from Huber himself. So what of the price, which, when it launched in the mid-90s set the benchmark for super-luxe, extravagant skincare. Well, that all comes down to the specific, artisanal way the kelp is hand-harvested by small groups of divers, and the exacting temperature standards and labour-intensive hand-filling process demanded in the lab. Even the jars used are the exact same opal glass that Huber first used, and it’s those little touches that impart that sense of romanticism, something that the La Mer team fully acknowledges is part of the allure today: “We were trying to anticipate Max’s direction from the off with La Mer, and to a certain extent we’re still doing that. He’s still very much leading the brand journey with what he created all those years ago,” says Bevacqua.